Felix In Hollywood

A Blog for the Smart Set

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mother's Jugs In Beads - The Showgirl Goes On

A love letter to the Divine One.

In the late 1960s, Steve Ostrow opened The Continental Baths in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side in New York City. The Continental Baths was advertised as reminiscent of “the glory of ancient Rome.”

A gay man with $15 can get both sex and entertainment at the Continental and know he was mixing with the beautiful people. He might still turn up to work on Monday and be fired for being a fag. – Dennis Altman, 1971

Out of the steam and up to the mike emerged young Bette Midler fresh from a run in Fiddler On The Roof. She was brash, kinetic and talented. She loved the queens and the queens loved her. And she was accompanied by a talented young pianist named Barry Manilow.

The success of her show there was fast and furious. Suddenly, The Glitterati began to converge on the cabaret room at the Continental. The gowned and tuxedo-ed next to the toweled and the naked. Only in New York, only in the 70's! This led to an appearance on The Tonight Show, where she performed her maniacally perfect Chattanooga Choo Choo. Johnny's expression is priceless. He's blown away, and predicts great things to come for this girl.

Meanwhile, in Duluth (for pity's sake!) a ten year old boy, able to stay up late because of summer vacation is watching and, without reservation, agrees with Carson.

Soon she is signed to Atlantic Records and under the guidance, mentor-ship and lover-ship of genius Ahmet Ertegun, she produces three, simply perfect, albums in a row. Spanning these three records, you find pop, jazz, saloon songs, latin rhythms, disco, swing, boogie woogie, and even a duet with Bob Dylan for Chrissake!

She hit the road in '75 with a monstrously huge show for the "Live At Last" tour. I could be wrong, but I believe it was the first pop concert tour this massive kind of staging, sets and props.

Thankfully, long gone from Duluth, I was now 16 and living in the Washington DC suburbs. And with a thermos full of vodka and orange juice in hand, I hopped into my best friend Cathy Kite's car and off we headed to Shady Grove Music Fair to see Bette live, at last.

Now here's the kicker: the moron from tour management didn't do proper advance work when he booked this date. Shady Grove is theater in the round! So none of the remarkable sets could be used and the whole show had to be re-staged in something like a day. Ya think Bette was gonna let this go? Hah!! All night she kept referring to the venue as 'Shitty Grove Music Fair'. "Welcome to Shitty Grove Music Fair. This place has all the fucking charm and finesse of a Ramada Inn!"

Cathy's big memory is of Bette taking a photograph of Barry Manilow and sitting on it. Needless to say, it was remarkable. The configuration of the stage didn't limit Bette, The Harlettes, or the show. Not. One. Bit.

I almost don't need to mention her revelatory, Oscar nominated film debut; The Rose.
And a good thing it is that it needs so little mention as there is precious little media available for a show and tell on the matter. But in just these 3 photos look at everything that's going on in her face.

I was now 20, working for the federal government (as one does in dc)and a raging, out of the closet drunken party boy. And when I heard that one of my favorite entertainers was staring in a movie based on the life of one of my other favorite entertainers, I was over the moon! Every day for a week, I ran from my office to the liquor store in L'Enfant Plaza, bought a six pack and jumped in my maroon Pinto to drive over the bridge to the theater in Crystal City, Va. that was showing the movie. I'd have 5 of the beers in me for a nice buzz by the time I parked the car and for 5 consecutive days, I guzzled that movie like it was the 6th beer. Learning every song, every line of dialogue, every nuance of her performance.

A couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a 30th (!) anniversary screening of the film at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences theater and in the post screening Q&A the films' director, Mark Rydell summed up things beautifully by saying that Midler's biggest problem in the wake of the film is that she was so extraordinary that Hollywood just didn't know what to do with her. He contends that an opportunity was missed to exploit a brilliant dramatic actress. I agree.

One of the loveliest things I've ever seen was her tribute to Mr. Carson when he was leaving The Tonight Show. Go ahead and watch it without choking up. I dare you.

Next month, our girl will conclude her 2 year commitment at Caesars Palace in Vegas. I've not been fortunate enough to make that show #4 in the live appearances I've seen but friends tell me it is completely mind blowing. And I just think to myself, 'well, of course, it's Bette.'

My favorite Bette Midler song? Oh that's easy: 1973, Second Album, the wonderful Johnny Mercer song, Skylark. It's spare, just her vocal and Barry on piano, and it's just perfect.


TJB said...

I love the imagery of you, the six pack, and the maroon pinto. Classic 70's.

"The glory of ancient Rome..." Glory holes, is more like it...

FelixInHollywood said...

Within a year of buying that car, every quarter panel was bashed in and there were never less than 30 empty Smirnoff and Michelob rolling around the floorboards.

It was around that time that a friend christened it
"The Pinto-De Ville"

Anonymous said...

When I first arrived in NYC I found my way to the Continental Baths. Sadly I missed Bette Midler but still have some fond memories of the place.

FelixInHollywood said...

Hi Dray!
I'm such a fan of yours and am honored to see you here at my lil ol place.

normadesmond said...

not unlike you, i just happened to be up that fateful night (in 1970 (?)....i don't know the precise date/year) and watched la midler do her thing on the tonight show. it was as if i'd been struck....oh how stupid of me to say that, of course i'd been struck! slapped is more like it! it was a true 'moment' and i needed to do something about it, but it must've been after midnight and that gave me few options available. somehow, i had the nerve to grab paper & pen and write a letter. i'm certain it was awful, back then, i barely knew what a sentence was, but write i did. i have no idea what i wrote...frothy misspelled blather from an illiterate 16 year old, BUT, i do remember one sentence and it was, "I think you're hot shit." i mailed it off the next day to bette, in care of the tonight show. the response i received is postmarked february 5, 1971. the stationary is a very sunshiny yellow with a predominantly pink flowered liner. it's return address reads "Midler c/o Friedman 358 W.44th St.. NYC, NY" the letter reads, "Dear Matthew: Your letter was a total delight and I am thrilled that you think I am Hot Shit. I think I am too, Isn't it wonderful?! Thank you for taking the time to write me- it's nice to know that there are people out there who understand what I do- yours, Bette Midler"

if you think i ever acted blase about receiving this, you're wrong.

now as for my first viewing, dates are sketchy. it occurred at lenny's on the pike, a dump in danvers, massachusetts. i had the foresight to snatch a little souvenir from that show; a tacky yet delightful placard. this table topper had been amateurly pasted up, touting midler as johnny carson's discovery, giving barry manilow, musical director a small plug and proclaiming that their $1.40 roast beef & home baked hams sandwiches, "are hearty and wholesome". the bottle of soave bolla was $6.05. the dates written are june 29-july 2. (one can only hope that her 4th of july gig was a step up from this dump!) my problem is with what year this was. 1971? ...1972....'73? i've even got a few great snapshots from this show.

as for the other concerts, there were so many i've forgotten a bunch. every time she came into boston, i'd be there. saw "art or bust" in universal city. years after she'd made it big, she played the paradise on commonwealth ave. a very small room in comparison to her usual venues. at this show, i took a whole role of photos with my instamatic camera. what a joke, they're all blurs, except one. a very close-up, not so flattering shot of bette.

sorry if i rambled, but you made me do it.....

with this WV: "horman" and my diatribe, i'll consider my cherry popped at this site, thank you.

FelixInHollywood said...

Holy Shit - SHE WROTE YOU!!!!!

I just spit coffee across the room.

What perfectly amazing and, well, perfect memories.

Let me just add Miss D, that you'll always have full and complete diatribe-ing rights here.

normadesmond said...

well, you made me do it....i've gone & jumped in.....


FelixInHollywood said...


And might I say, high time too!

Dean said...

"The Rose" is one of the most underrated movies of all time. When I turned 16, my first job was working in a movie theater. All the theaters in the area had an agreement that employees could watch movies at other theaters for free (granted a show wasn't sold out). My best friend and co-worker Lisa was a Janis wannabe, so when we heard about this movie we were stoked. Needless to say, the theater that was showing it (not ours) was doomed to see our faces about 40 times in the next couple of months of it's run. We were mesmerized by her performance, her singing, the songs, the visuals--everything. It's still unbelievable to me that Bette didn't win the Oscar.